When the Prison Becomes Home
Prison blows. I knew that long before I got in here and now, I just want out. My pa always told me to not “play with guns” but he never said to not defend myself. That white kid I murdered had chased me halfway down the street—he had a knife, I had a gun— it was me or him. I, unfortunately, was the skinny, black kid in the situation. They threw me in here faster than you can say, Holy Trinity, tha’s some good gumbo. Life sentence for defending myself against a violent white guy.
My bunkmate is Elijah, he’s got a life sentence for being caught smoking weed behind his high school’s dumpsters. He, unfortunately, was over the age of eighteen.
As long as you behave the wardens are kinda nice. You can earn a bit of cash working in the cotton and corn fields behind the prison and they have a library which makes it slightly less boring. I’ve also done a hell of a lot of push-ups since then. Not nearly as skinny as when I got in here four years ago. I did have a girlfriend but she left as soon as I was convicted.
I spend much of my time reading and working my days away, but it isn’t so bad. Better than paying taxes I guess.
My cellmate is nice enough, that he didn’t commit a super-serious crime. Was a big stoner and complains a lot that he is sober, but he was also as much of a scholar as I was, a straight-A student and whatnot. We like our fair share of fictional novels.
Today, after returning to my out camp, I found Eli reading our shared favorite: Lord of the Rings. Has read it dozens of times. “They took Alan somewhere,” Eli says without taking his eyes off his book.
I raise an eyebrow. “Why’d they do that? Causing a ruckus?” I haul myself onto my top bunk.
“I don’t think so. That’d be unlike Alan.” His response is quiet as his mind is still occupied by his book. Our out camp building is set up in a small building with bunks set up in rows and columns. There are eight buildings in camp C and about forty inmates in this building. We are all minimum-security since we are well behaved and we do our jobs without argument. There are only two wardens watching us at a time and only a couple of janitors to help with the upkeep. I have only befriended a couple of inmates: my bunkmate Elijah Thomas, Alan Henderson, and George Tandry.
Alan has been in here for two years and has only a few months left until he is out on probation. He beat up a guy who tried to mug him, but the assailant’s family pressed charges. Alan is forty-five and also black, so the jury said he was guilty. Elijah is only twenty-two and will spend the rest of his life here, like me. George is a cool white guy, who was only in here for beating his dead-beat son who robbed a place. He has been here for about two months and will get out in November. It is July now.
I wipe the beads of sweat from my face with the back of my hand. There aren’t any air-conditioners in the out camps or prison cells, so the prisoners are either stifling or a bit chilly. Luckily we are in Louisiana so it never gets too cold. The heat can be stifling though, and it isn’t surprising for guys to collapse from heatstroke. Some guys can’t handle the heat and have been given their own air conditioners. The place is so crowded that some of the cells have three inmates, making the room even warmer. I was lucky to be put in an out camp, we sometimes get a cool breeze through the open windows.
I pull out my own library book from under my pillow and start reading to pass the time.
Alan wasn’t back for a week but when he got back he told us all about it. Apparently, the CDC is testing a new medicine or whatever and they took a couple of voluntary inmates and offered them early release on probation. The drug didn’t do anything to him so they put him back here until he is released in two weeks. He said the drug was a fungus that affects only ants that they modified to see if it would work on humans. Now he’s back in our camp and we get to watch him walk out to his freedom, while the rest of us are stuck in this hell hole.
Lunchtime in the Angola prison cafeteria is dangerous. There are more murderers, rapists, and gangsters here than in any other Louisiana prison and nearly everyone has a shank of some kind. Mine is made from a sharpened plastic butter-knife handle that I keep hidden in my sneaker. The prison sneakers slip on and off easily where they don’t have any laces. They don’t want anyone strangling each other in here. Or worse, committing suicide.
The cafeteria is one of the air-conditioned rooms and some guys will fight over washing dishes after mealtime. I enjoy the cooler air and my book while scooping some beans onto my fork. My bunkmates sit around me, and other inmates are at the nearby table. The chattering of the other men isn’t enough to distract me from my book though.
“Yo, Liam. Think that drug they gave me would change my taste buds?” Alan asks me with his gravelly voice.
I shrug, keeping my eyes on my book. “Maybe, but you also probably got used to CDC food. Prison food isn’t known for tasting good.”
Alan scoops another spoonful into his mouth and I notice his expression of distaste. “I dunno, the beans weren’t always so bad.” I take another bite without looking up and I continue to ignore the other prison mates. I notice Alan complaining about his baked beans. Our table returns to silence for just another couple of minutes and then I glance up when I hear Alan gag obscenely and loudly.
“Seriously, dude, they aren’t that bad!” Elijah responds bewilderedly. He cradles his book between his fingers but stares at Alan with alarm. Even I have stopped my reading to watch the scene.
“I’m telling you, man, the beans taste fucking rank.” Alan pushes his plate away with a squished face of disgust. We all shrug off his overdramatic act and continue eating until the prison guards direct us to toss our paper trays and return to our blocks. We follow the lines of prisoners, all men in our half of the prison, back to our out camp in a corner of the prison. Another group from out camp D is just returning from the work fields to have their turn eating lunch. Our section is next to go out to the fields, meaning I need to return my book to my bunk and buckle down to harvest corn.
The heat beats down on my back to the point that I had to tie the sleeves of my jumpsuit around my waist so I am working in my tank top. The sun doesn’t burn my dark skin, so I am just reduced to wiping the slick sweat off my shoulders and neck. It drips down in streaming rivulets, much like all of the other men. Some of their white skin has already turned bright pink in the hot sun.
I throw another cob into my burlap bag and then cinch it closed to bring it to the tractor where the guards have gathered to supervise. They stand around the water cooler as if bragging that they aren’t imprisoned and desperate for something to do to the point that we are picking their produce for them. All of the cotton and corn that we pick is sold as produce for the people in the West- Felencia Parish and in the Angola prison, so we are feeding and clothing ourselves while earning some change. I don’t mind the work as long as they let us listen to some music while we’re doing it. Makes the unbearable heat somewhat more bearable.
“Yo, Liam, you have visitors inside.” One of the guards nearby calls to me from atop the customarily green John Deere tractor. Another jumps down to escort me back to the main building across the wide expanses of the field.